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Looking forward to Moore’s Novel: An Alternative History

Yesterday, I did something I rarely do anymore. I paid full price for three books!

The first was an ebook version of Marion Nestle’s Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding your Dog and Pet. I have a new dog and admit that pet nutrition makes no sense to me. Hopefully this book will shed some  light.

The second was Norman Walsh’s print manual for Docbook 5. As technical books go, it’s not as fun as Bob Staynton’s Docbook XSL (which despite being 3 years old is something i refer to almost every day). Still, Docbook 5 clarifies a lot of things, and some of the sections go into great depth. Oddly, Walsh’s book (like Staynton’s) are already available for free online, but having a print copy is very useful. Of course, this is true only for reference guides.

The last book is  Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History (thanks, Literary Saloon).  Steven Moore was an editor at Dalkey Archives/Review of Contemporary Fiction for a decade or so; (I’d even communicated with him briefly when I did  brief book reviews for Review of Contemporary Fiction a long time ago). Back in the Nineties RCF was doing some amazing things. They were a quarterly journal doing single issues devoted to authors, and I eagerly awaited/dreaded the next author RCF was going to devote an entire  issue to. Here’s a great photo of Moore with Felipe Alfau, a Dalkey Archives discovery. I learned later that Moore was the one responsible for rediscovering his works (I’m a big fan of  Locos and Chromos – I have a book review of Chromos somewhere; some day I’ll put it online). 

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In an interview Moore did with John Lingan about the book in 2008, he said:

It’s that the experimental, artsy novel that [reviewer Dale] Peck and others feel began with Ulysses actually began thousands of years ago, and that today’s experimentalists are continuing in that venerable tradition. The conventional, realistic novel that dominates the best-seller lists today is a very late development in the long history of the novel, not the novel’s default setting. So I begin at the beginning—ancient Egypt, "The Tale of Sinuhe" (c. 1950 BCE)—and show that all early fiction writers were innovative, making up the rules as they went along. At early stages in every culture’s history, literary theorists like Aristotle in Greece (and his counterparts in India and China) established rules and expectations for poetry and drama, but ignored prose fiction. Consequently, novelists were free to do whatever the hell they wanted, so I survey the results from around the world up to the year 1600 (right before Don Quixote, 1605). That’s where my Volume 1 ends, which is circulating among publishers right now. Volume 2 will begin with Cervantes and end with the most interesting novel of 2012.

And I’m developing a secondary theme that fiction is a kind of secular literature running alongside every culture’s sacred literature—testing its validity in "real" life, so to speak—and that fiction is finally a more trustworthy guide to life than sacred texts.

….

Innovative writers have always faced opposition, but 50 years ago, an educated person would have been apologetic if he had never read Ulysses; after 2000, you had people like that bog-trotter Roddy Doyle saying Joyce wasn’t worth reading, as though it showed good sense not to have read Ulysses. Instead of being embarrassed at not making it past page 25 of Gravity’s Rainbow, some people were proud to have seen through that charlatan so quickly. These conservative critics seem to hold a “family values” attitude toward literature, believing that anything outside of the mainstream of fiction should be shunned, and that if a novel couldn’t be read and appreciated by your average Joe or Jane, then it was a pretentious waste of time. Of course you don’t have to like Joyce (or Pynchon or Gaddis), they’re certainly not for everyone, but to dismiss them as pretentious frauds and to glorify simpler, more traditional fiction struck me as an example of the growing anti-intellectualism in our country, right in step with schools mandating that evolution was just a “theory” and that creationism should be taught alongside it in science classes.

I couldn’t help but detect some laziness as well; some people don’t want to “work” at reading a novel (or listening to a complex opera, or watching a film with subtitles, etc). I said earlier I liked a challenge; many people obviously don’t, or not when it comes to novels. I got the sense from these critics that they feel the novel is a democratic, middle-class genre that anyone should be able to enjoy, and that these experimentalists were betraying the novel (and their readers) by trying to turn it into something (high art) it was never intended to be. (In music, punks reacted the same way in the 1970s after progressive, virtuosic rock bands turned pop music into something they felt it was never intended to be.) But only since the 18th-century were novels written for the benefit of average readers; for the 2000 years before that, novels were written and read by scholars and aristocrats, for the most part. These critics seemed to be unaware of the novel’s decidedly elitist roots, so that’s the history I decided to tell in my work in progress.

Interestingly, although  Moore stays on top of contemporary writers both here and abroad, he hasn’t started  a blog (if only to republish his book reviews). Maybe it’s not that unusual. Gaining cachet in the literary world requires publishing a major book, and Moore spent his time working on a major book. Blogging – like book reviewing  — can be a distraction and nothing more than a record of your leisure time activities.

I never considered myself a particularly adept book reviewer. First, my memory for details is awful. Second, not-great books rarely make an impression on you, compounding the memory problem even further. Third, whenever I do get excited about a work,  I end up either wanting to write a longish essay about it or just gushing with enthusiasm. Perhaps if I had a prestigious gig writing book reviews, I’d take it more seriously.  

Finally, book reviewers should be able to write book reviews effortlessly. I love a good book review, but it’s rare that a book review bowls me over. Most  are little more than  snap judgments artfully expressed. When I try to write one, I suffer from designeritis. Really the differences between a great and a good book are not that profound. I could easily force myself to get excited about a less-than-great work if  a paycheck were behind it.  But reviews are necessary to write. In my ongoing list of books read,  I really just throw together some random adjectives and opinions.

Sometimes that is enough.  One thing that amazed me about Jack Matthews was how few book reviews of his books  were available online … there wasn’t even a single review on Amazon! Later, I realized that there were a smattering of reviews of his books on literary journals.   But let’s be honest. The vast majority of books being published these days go unremarked upon. Even if we agree that Amazon.com reader reviews fluctuate in quality, a lot of books are never reviewed at all unless published by a major house and review copies are distributed through the Amazon Vine program.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it really fall?

If a book is published and it has been unremarked upon and even unnoticed (except by google),  has  it really been published?

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